I believe that a very enlightening way to understand the faith versus works issue related to salvation is to consider the analogy of immigration in America. This analogy has some biblical support since salvation entails entrance into the Kingdom of God. The analogy also explains some attitudes by many American evangelical leaders favorable toward illegal immigration.
Three Approaches to Immigration
Prior to 1921 immigration to America was open to anyone. However, people were expected to reject their allegiance to their old country and to assimilate into American society by committing allegiance to our nation, obeying our laws, learning our language, and becoming acquainted with our history and government.
Later, America became more selective, establishing requirements such as the necessity of a profession of some type in the nation from which they came in addition to commitment to the earlier requirements related to assimilation.
Now, with the illegal immigration we make no requirements. We in effect allow all people to cross the border and place no obligations on them regarding assimilation.
My analysis of these approaches to immigration is as follows. The first arrangement worked well, at least at that time in our history. The second arrangement worked fine for America, but placed a stumbling block for good, honest people who were willing to assimilate into our society. The third arrangement is not working, creating chaos in the country because of a number of illegal immigrants unwilling to obey our laws, learn our language, relinquish allegiance to the old country, and otherwise assimilate.
Application to Salvation
Salvation by grace without works, a biblical perspective on salvation, is reflected in the first arrangement. The individual is not required by God to meet any criteria for entrance into His Kingdom. The person does not have to be rich or educated. In fact, sinners of all kinds are welcome. This is what Paul seems to be describing in Colossians 1:13-14, “For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
However the individual must be willing to repent, that is, relinquish his allegiance to the kingdom of darkness and all of its ideas, values, attitudes, and behaviors. Faith is also required for entrance into that Kingdom, which in essence entails a commitment to assimilate into the Kingdom of God. This would include submission to the authority of the King and committing oneself to keep the laws of the Kingdom of God. Assimilation (faith) would also include learning Scripture so that the individual can know the history and culture of the Kingdom and abide by the laws of the Kingdom. This denouncing of the previous citizenship and allegiance to the new Kingdom is symbolized through the rite of baptism.
Notice that in this approach to salvation nothing about life in the old kingdom matters, but breaking ties with that kingdom and commitment to the new kingdom does.
In the 1800s and early 1900s Liberal Christianity became a dominant force in America. It preached salvation by works, and therefore its perspective on salvation reflected the second type of immigration described above, which required certain achievements in the previous kingdom for one to be considered for citizenship in the Kingdom of God. This works type of salvation is clearly rejected by Scripture.
Contemporary evangelicals parallel that third arrangement to citizenship in their approach to salvation, teaching that to enter the Kingdom of God, as in the first arrangement, no works or status in the previous kingdom is necessary, which is biblical. But they also assert that no allegiance to the new kingdom is essential either, which is not biblical. All that is needed is the desire to enter the new kingdom and enjoy its benefits. They believe that once the believer enters the Kingdom of God, under the influence of its environment, his behavior will spontaneously change.
There two problems with this perspective. First, it rejects a biblical understanding of repentance and faith, which require breaking allegiance with the old kingdom and submitting oneself to the authority of the kingdom of God. In addition, though some people under the influence of the new Christian environment change, but many do not. They do not believe that they have an obligation to do so, and consequently they do not exercise the related disciplines. As a result of this perspective on salvation we find chaos in the contemporary evangelical church corresponding to the chaos in our nation due to illegal immigration.
It is interesting that many evangelicals favor policies supportive of illegal immigration. Might this be because he illegal immigration reflects their perspective on the nature of God and his plan of salvation?